Across the street from Lacey Park in San Marino, California, a sprawling wooded property with a number of buildings occupies one and a half acres, tucked away off a private road. The unique challenge and great opportunity were to transform the property into an authentically unified experience, driven by a strong role and vision for the landscape.

The original structures on the property are a modestly sized mid-century home, built in 1954 and designed by Carl Straub, and a free-standing garage. The house was updated, the garage was converted into a photography studio/library and a range of new buildings were added to create an extraordinary residential micro-campus. Taking inspiration from the ethos of indoor/outdoor living, as expressed in the mid-century architecture of the primary structure, a series of outdoor spaces flow from one to another throughout the expansive property. These spaces were conceived and developed to create new experiences that would be an extension of the architecture and offer new ways of using the landscape as part of the family’s daily life.

The crisp geometry of the primary circulation and patios serves as a transition from architecture to landscape, and paired with winding paths and informal trails, creates a natural hierarchy of movement. Filled with oaks and redwoods and influenced by the proximity to the Arroyo Seco of Pasadena, the garden’s warm palette of native, subtropical and Mediterranean plantings strives to artfully emulate the indigenous landscape.

Much consideration was given to sustainability, and the design encompassed a broad range of low water need plants and used a minimum of hardscape. The majority of the property was designed to be permeable, with an abundance of space dedicated to planting areas, expanses of gravel, and concrete pavers with planted joints, allowing rainfall to percolate and stay on site. There was a great deal of grading work done to achieve the circulation and various flat pads made to be occupied, and we worked to keep all soil on site, with a cut and fill strategy. A composting bin system was implemented, making great use of the leaf litter of the property’s majestic oak trees.

The landscape project rolled out over several years, following and responding to the development and construction of the various buildings. The first phase of the project focused on creating a new entry experience for the family. As they enter the top of the property, near a new ceramic studio, the entry was conceived of as not only a way to enter the home, but to create a dynamic experience that offers multiple opportunities to use and spend time in the upper garden. A productive kitchen garden was designed with raised and in-ground beds, filled with herbs, vegetables and fruit trees, and interplanted with fragrant flowers for cutting and ornamental plants to ensure that the kitchen garden has interest and beauty year-round. A large built-in sitting area provides a comfortable and accessible area for frequent family dining, including meals that are often made from the garden.

The second phase of landscape design and installation is the highly focal roof of the photography studio, which can be viewed inside and out. Rather than plant it with a mono-culture, the design took inspiration from the pour paintings of the 1960’s, specifically the work of Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, and interpreted their work into a graphic flowing pattern using a variety of colorful succulents. Other green roofs on the property are treated more subtlety with a mix of Sedum varieties to blend in with the greater landscape, with the intention of softening and blurring the lines between landscape and architecture.

The third, largest and most complex phase of the project tackled the overall site circulation, the unification of the old and the new, and the creation of a landscape that provided continuity and context for the architecture. A hierarchy of hardscape was developed to link the contemporary structures with the historic mid-century buildings. A layering of primary, secondary and tertiary circulation was defined by material choices, combining hard surfaces made of concrete, pebbles and stone with rustic materials, such as landscape ties and decomposed granite. Modes of movement also communicated intent, with straight direct walkways indicating primary paths, and meandering sinuous trails created for strolling.

Within the network of choreographed movement, a variety of trees, shrubs, perennials and ornamental grasses are woven into fulsome compositions that change and evolve as one moves through the spaces and the seasons. Exploring color, texture, form and scale, the rich plant culture responds to the specific climate conditions of the site, which is both sunny and shady, flat and hilly, and attracts birdlife and pollinators. One goal was to carefully screen neighboring structures while maintaining open views within the property and a sense of connection to the greater landscape. This was achieved through the selection of plant material that was appropriate inn scale and the right coloration and texture to blend with the borrowed landscape to provide connectivity to the vistas beyond. Special consideration was given to introducing new planting beneath the vast canopies of the many Oak trees, which have specific needs and requirements.

A series of outdoor rooms complete the experience, with every detail taken into consideration and planning, including custom-made furnishings. A generous seating area surrounding a firepit offers day into night enjoyment of the garden, in concert with subtle lighting. Wide stairs lead to built-in poolside seating and provide generous access to the outbuildings. Small patios are discovered along the trails and provide quiet private spaces for friends and family alike.

The clients entertain frequently, with outdoor dinners of two dozen to events of two hundred, and the landscape accommodates all scales of gatherings while maintaining a sense of intimacy. We feel that natural and composed landscapes are a conduit for social engagement and can inspire meaningful connections between people and places. We strive to create landscapes that that are deeply personal and celebrate the relationship between planetary health, artistic expression and the ephemerality of the natural world. Overall, the goal was to activate the large property, connect it to its place, the greater landscape and its inhabitants. During the last few years, it has become that and much more – an environment that offers a respite, a garden that is shared with many and an evolving landscape that has been woven into the fabric of the lives of its owners and stewards.

Name of the project: Arroyo Seco Residence
Project category: Private Garden
Role of the entrant in the project: Principal Designer
Other designers involved in the design of landscape (if any):
Project Architects: Fung + Blatt (pool design) and Plain Air (custom outdoor furniture design)
Project location (For publicly accessible projects please include exact address. For Private gardens place write Country or State): California, USA
Design year: 2011-2013
Year Built: 2012-2016


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